In What Ways, If Any, Does the Role of the Esp Teacher Differ from That of a Teacher of ‘General English’? and, to What Extent Is It Necessary for the Teacher of Esp to Have Knowledge of the Student's Subject or Professional Discipline?

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In what ways, if any, does the role of the ESP teacher differ from that of a teacher of ‘general English’? And, to what extent is it necessary for the teacher of ESP to have knowledge of the student’s subject or professional discipline?

For reasons of space and focus this essay will concentrate on what has historically been the most important branch of ESP, namely English for Academic purposes.[1] The role of the EAP teacher does have significant areas of overlap with that of a general English teacher, (or with any other kind of teacher) but there are differences and these are pointed out. The question of content knowledge is a thorny issue but a hard line is argued here. I assert that discipline specific knowledge is not necessary for an EAP teacher if, and only if, he or she concentrates upon the numerous transferable skills crucial for any successful EAP course. For reasons of focus and argumentation, the second half of the essay will make reference to a specific teaching context, one which has high relevance to the issues raised by the question.

Let us kick off with a definitional distinction. John Swales (1985) prefers the term “ESP practitioner” to “teacher” because of the numerous tasks that ESP practitioners will have to concern themselves with outside of the classroom. Now, of course a teacher of general English will have to prepare for lessons and evaluate homework (unless they work for Berlitz), but it is unlikely that they will have to spend anything like the amount of time that an ESP teacher will spend on matters such as needs analysis, syllabus design and production of materials. Context would seem to be the issue here: it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that every time an ESP teacher takes on a new class he or she will be faced with a group of students who have needs which will not be satisfactorily met by an extant coursebook. And so the practitioners will need to find out what the group’s needs are and then knead, or create from scratch, appropriate materials. Actually, however, it seems it would almost certainly be more accurate to say (along with Tom Hutchinson and Alan Waters 87:53) that it is sensitivity to context which is the distinguishing difference, and that General English teachers would benefit from a focus on needs analysis just as much as the ESP teacher.

Hutchinson and Waters co-authored an influential text in the field which can often provide a useful “way in” to the question of the role of the EAP teacher. In their “English for Specific purposes : a learning centred approach”, they put forward many strongly expressed views which are always useful to consider, although not necessarily to adopt. Here, for example, is what they have to say on methodology, “There is nothing specific about ESP methodology. The principles which underlie good ESP methodology are the same as those that underlie sound ELT methodology in general.” (87:142) This seems reasonable enough, after all in any situation a (trendy) teacher should play the role of a guide, a facilitator, and an evaluator (amongst other things) and there is no reason why effective pedagogical principles should not cut across contexts. However, on occasion they tend to grind their axe a little too enthusiastically. Their final chapter on “The role of the ESP teacher” advocates grouping ESP students across broad subject areas and using topics from a wide range of subjects in order to raise students’ awareness about the supposed “lack of specificity of their needs”(87:167) but this is by no means either an easy (in my experience students resent it) or a worthwhile task. To bring in the big guns, “The seeming suitability of the wide-angle approach to prestudy courses does not mean that it is suitable for all ESP courses, in particular, for graduate students and professionals…the wide-angle or so called common core approach needs to be supplemented by some attempt to define students’ more specific needs and the actual language...
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